Melissa Li is a musician, writer, and composer based in Montreal. She got her start creating her own scripts as a child before turning to songwriting and short film development in high school! After finding a home with True Colors at The Theatre Offensive in Boston, Li began to craft her very first musical. After a stint as an editor on a (bad) self-help book, wedding videographer, office manager, and director of nutrition, she attended Boston University and got to work on Interstate, MISS STEP, and Again, and has several TV/Film projects in the making! Li finds in writing that the details – from the way characters stand to how something is placed – can really aid in her storytelling process. Her advice to young artists? “Don't be afraid of your own voice. It's what makes your art special and unique.” Read on to learn more about Melissa Li and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Melissa Li
Heritage: Chinese American
Hometown: Boston and New York City
Current City: Montreal
Current project: Interstate, MISS STEP, Again and some TV/Film projects in the works.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Don't be afraid of your own voice. It's what makes your art special and unique. For young folks, especially folks of color and queer folks, it's really easy to get caught up in feeling inadequate and thinking about how to change yourself to sound more like this or that. Trust your own creative instincts, and then keep working at it until you're telling your story the best way it can be told.
How did you get your start?
I started writing stories and scripts from as far back as I could remember. When I was 13, I started branching out and writing songs, and then in high school, I wrote short films and made all my friends act in them. Eventually, I got involved in The Theater Offensive, a theater company in Boston, and joined True Colors, their queer youth theater program. From there, it became an artistic home for me as I started working on my first musical.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
Seeing a production go up is always my favorite part of the job. Actors reading my lines and singing my notes. It's always so exciting to see the words come alive.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Money! It's always the most complicated part because artists are so underpaid in theater, but yet it takes up so much time to make good theater. At the end of the day, it's a lot about juggling different types of projects, and planning creative work in advance.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
I'd love to highlight some theaters I've worked with before that are doing great work – East West Players, the longest-running theater of color in the United States. Village Theater in Issaquah, WA that's been a huge supporter of my current project MISS STEP. And of course, shout out to Musical Theater Factory in NYC that's been at the heart of nurturing new musical theater talent.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
I'd always wanted to be in the arts. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor, and later in life, a singer-songwriter. So being a performer was always in me. Eventually I went to college for film production because I thought I was going to become a filmmaker.
Is where you are now where you thought you’d be?
Not at all. I thought I was going to make films and/or maybe do some acting. And later on, I thought I'd just be a full time performer and musician. But I guess I'm also not surprised I ended up being a writer, because I did a lot of writing when I was a kid as well.
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
Yes. I edited a really bad self-help book once. I was a wedding videographer after I finished college. I worked in a high school as an office manager and, believe it or not, the director of nutrition. I worked as an audio transcriptionist, and also did music scoring for video games and apps. I've done everything.
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
Yes, I'm collaborating on a new one-act musical with Hmong playwright Katie Ka Vang calledAGAIN that's premiering in April 2023 in Minneapolis at Theater Mu. It's a musical about cancer relapse, but has a surprising amount of levity and a lot of heart. It's a fun show with pop songs that'll make you laugh and cry.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
You won't be the person you thought you'd be, but if you're lucky, it'll turn out even better than you imagined.
Where did you study at?
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Writing my first musical when I was 23! When you're that age, spending four years on finishing something, ANYTHING, is HUGE.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love that I get to tell stories for other queer folks like me. I love that folks come to me and say that seeing something I wrote was the first time they ever saw themselves represented. I love when folks tell me they can't get my music out of their heads. I consider that the greatest honor.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
The greatest "failure" of my life was when my band Good Asian Drivers, with Kit Yan (my now collaborator), fell apart. I rebounded by starting another band, and through that process of growth and healing, I learned that success wasn't about money, or fame, or audience, but it was about my own love for music and whether or not I could appreciate and enjoy what I was doing in my own life. After that, I felt like I had a whole new perspective on the reason why I make art.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I do something else. Literally anything else. I do not power through it. I consume art, watch a show, cook a meal, take care of my own personal and emotional needs. Daydream in the shower.
Are there any habits you have that have shaped your writing style?
Yes. I really love details. When I'm writing, I am constantly visualizing what's happening in the scene – where something is placed, how people are standing. Even if it's overwritten and I have to cut later, it helps me really focus on what I'm "watching" in my mind's eye, and it helps me be a better storyteller.
How do you think your creative process has changed over time?
It's a little more structured now. I'm pushed to finish more things, rather than having ideas hanging, and that's mostly thanks to my collaborator, who is very result and goal-oriented.
To find out more about Melissa Li, please visit her at:
Instagram and Twitter: @melsaboo
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